One in three Australian workers suffer from mental illness.
One in three Australian workers suffer from mental illness.

How to spot the signs of workplace anxiety

ONE in three Aussie workers now suffer from depression, anxiety or stress.

That's up from just one in five workers suffering a mental illness a decade ago, according to a recent survey by Medibio of more than 3500 employees, which warns the "manner in which we all live, work and interact has changed radically, to the detriment of our mental health".

With anxiety in the workplace now estimated to cost businesses up to 100,000 hours of lost time every year, Sydney FC emotional intelligence, resilience and mental agility coach Mike Conway says the issue of stressed-out employees can no longer be swept under the rug.

"If you have one person in a team of five or 10 who is anxious or struggling, that team will not be a great team," he said. "One, it's a bottom line piece for the business, but secondly these anxious people are going home and being anxious at home, affecting the next generation."

Mr Conway, the former managing director of The Wiggles who now runs resilience and leadership advisory firm XVenture, says given we spend a third of our lives at work, it's no surprise it is a prime environment for anxiety.

Anxiety is commonly linked with fear of failure. For an employee tasked with meeting a deadline or hitting a sales target, anxiety can be immobilising, preventing them from showing their true value and inhibiting career progression.

Mr Conway said it could play out "in lots of different ways". In the case of Sydney FC, while the team was "physically, technically and tactically" strong, he recalls there were "certain people who had doubts".

"They didn't have a standard set for themselves and there were elements of their work which had been habit for many years," he said. "That could be someone who gets in front of the goal to take a shot, or a goalkeeper who is not confident about saving penalties."


Sydney FC mental agility coach Mike Conway. Picture: Dominic O’Brien
Sydney FC mental agility coach Mike Conway. Picture: Dominic O’Brien

In an office job, it could be someone in a team who becomes anxious before presenting at a sales meeting.

"What quite often happens is the person goes into a cave," he said. "They don't feel they can talk about it because it's embarrassing, or alternatively they talk about it non-stop, then it becomes a focal point."

Mr Conway says it's the job of leaders with "emotional intelligence" to be aware of the mental health issues their employees face. The Medibio study found more than half of employees don't feel comfortable sharing their mental health issues with their superiors.

"I'm trying to get over the whole notion of anxiety because as soon as you start speaking about mental health, there is a group of people who are going to be frightened of talking about it," he said. "I'm reframing it to building a great team to be more successful."

Mr Conway, who has coached everyone from year 10 students taking the HSC to corporate leaders, warns bosses to be on the lookout for early signs of anxiety in their staff before they escalate into something more serious, dragging down the rest of the workplace.

Signs of anxiety include increased sickness and absence, negative future expectancy on suggested plans and ideas, irritability with day-to-day living conditions such as traffic, weather and IT issues.

They may also have frequent negative opinions about colleagues or clients, inability to focus, procrastination, and changed lifestyle habits including poor sleep patterns, change in diet and reliance on drugs and alcohol.

Mr Conway argues that the best way to improve emotional intelligence and resilience within individuals is a team-based approach, building trust and rapport between co-workers. "Building trust increases oxytocin, hormones that make you feel good about the people you're with," he said.

Today is R U OK Day 2018. With one simple chat you could save a life. Start the conversation with your friends, family and co-workers and ask 'R U OK?' If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.